In a traditional learning environment, students and their teachers are in the same place at the same time, busily working through the syllabus towards the academic goals of testing, certification, and of course, understanding. Distance learning deals with the process of education where time or space separate the teacher and student. In a globally connected world, the teacher in Malta, and student in Germany are obviously separated by space, and the answer to this has traditionally involved the travel of one party (usually the student) to the teacher’s location. The advent of readily available video conferencing software, however, has changed this situation dramatically, as new areas for teacher-student interaction have opened up and a world of new online possibilities have emerged to address the problem of space.
What is video conferencing?
When we talk about ‘video conferencing’, we refer to the software, now readily available via services like Skype, which makes it possible for not just voice, but also live video to be streamed via the internet, so that you can not only hear, but also see the person you’re talking to in real-time. It’s this level of interaction which has made all the difference when it comes to teaching and learning at a distance. We wouldn’t feel comfortable just hearing our teacher’s voice over the phone, and this is because of just how important sight is in understanding each other. The ability to actually see your teacher as he or she talks – to gauge expression and all the ‘feedback mechanisms’ such as gestures and reactions is vital to the way we understand each other, and it’s not until these visual cues are gone that we become aware of how important they are to the learning process.
Video conferencing addresses this issue, and the shaky, low-resolution pictures of the past are fast fading, with a new generation of high quality webcams being the standard in most people’s homes. It’s this technological advancement in home electronics which has facilitated the growth in distance learning, as schools and students no longer need to concern themselves with costly infrastructure – the technology which makes video conferencing possible is already widely used, on any standard computer. It’s free to download, and easy to use.
What else is involved?
While video conferencing has taken care of the ‘how’ we communicate, it’s just one aspect of distance learning. Teaching methodology is obviously slightly different when it comes to teaching at a distance, or when separated by time – students need to be able to study at their own convenience, as busy lives, studies, or work schedules mean that the time traditionally spent ‘in the classroom’ must be found elsewhere. In order to address these issues, the traditional ‘correspondence course’ approach has developed into an online solution, with websites filling the role of classroom, study area and library. Distance learning has come a long way, presenting new possibilities for individualised coursework and attention.
Via websites specifically designed for distance learning, coursework can be set, marked, and graded even though the teacher and student are ‘logging on’ at different times. The student has access to a vast library of learning resources aimed at all aspects of the pre-defined syllabus, and in this way, areas of educational concern can be addressed in a very personalised manner. The interactivity of the internet has really fulfilled the idea set forth in traditional correspondence courses – once hampered by the time it took for teacher and student to correspond via mail. Today, correspondence is instant via the internet, regardless of distance, so progress and guidance can be gauged and given in real-time.
The Impact of Distance Learning
With fully interactive distance learning now possible, people across the globe are taking advantage of the new opportunities, as courses of all kinds are now taught over the internet. One of the most striking examples is in the field of English language studies, where travel across great distances has always been part of the course. Students would typically travel to an English-speaking country to combine studies with a holiday, and the sector has grown hugely in recent years as low-cost airlines have made it a much more affordable proposition. But what about students who can’t spare a month to study full-time away from their work, family or other responsibilities?
Distance learning can help – it won’t provide the same experience as a holiday, but academically, the same material can be covered in a much more convenient way. Rather than view distance learning and traditional language tourism as separate fields – for those wanting to travel, but whose time, or finances are limited, a combination of distance learning and travel might be the answer and provide the greatest benefits possible. Courses of all types are making full use of distance learning as they seek to connect students to learning resources and teachers who would otherwise have been inaccessible. With the choices now available, it’s a great time to be a student, where technology and resources mean you can literally attend school from the comfort of your own home.